It was one of those foggy summer mornings in Ukhrul. I woke up knowing I could do well with another hour or more of sleep.
The fogs were still sleeping at the foot of the mountains, only to be awakened by the sun half an hour later. I had sent pictures of my house and the adjoining views to my friends and they said, “You’re on vacation.” Rightly so, I was on vacation; at home, until my father insisted I take charge of the renovation of the house. That morning was the first day of work.
I called Wungthei, the carpenter in charge of the renovation. We were to buy wooden planks and pillars for the same. I sleepily made my way to the nearest timber store of the town feeling as lazy as the fogs that were waking up now that the sun broke their eyes.
I reached the timber store a little earlier than the appointed time and to my surprise, Wungthei was already there. It came as a big shock to me that a carpenter from Ukhrul was waiting for me, that too before the appointed time! Things like that seldom happen in Ukhrul.
Wungthei had a look around and seeing that the timber was good, made the necessary bargaining and selected the timbers we would be buying.
A familiar driver came asking if we needed a vehicle to carry the timbers. The last time I remember him, he had a Mahindra jeep and a jeep was not going to do any good to us. However, the timber market is a good one in Ukhrul and apparently, he had bought a new bolero pick up, straight from the showroom he boasted later (Ukhrul is known for its population of smuggled second hand Mahindra Boleros). A bolero pick up would do the job and so we hired him.
Soon, we were loading the timbers when the driver and the owner of the store started arguing with each other. We thought it was over some petty matters and went on loading the timber when the argument heated and they got more aggressive. Curious to know what they were arguing about, I asked the driver what the matter was. Hesitantly, he said it was about a Kenbo (Burma’s beloved workhorse bike known for its strength and robust nature) that was found three nights earlier at the gate of the timber store.
Apparently, the owner of the shop had kept it as it was for the first two days but no one came to claim it so he pushed the Kenbo inside the compound of his house.
The driver was putting out that the owner of the store shouldn’t have done that because he endangered himself to various risks now that he took the bike inside his compound,
“What I am saying is that you should have just left it there or reported it to the police” he repeated time and again.
The owner of the store, defending himself, said he took it inside just so that the Kenbo won’t be stolen by other people.
“What if someone just comes and steals it away”.
“If the owner of the Kenbo is a truthful man, he’ll come back to claim it” the owner of the store followed.
“What kind of an honest man would leave his Kenbo in the streets for that long in a town like this?” the driver replied. He was sure the Kenbo was stolen and the thief or thieves left it there in the middle of the night because it ran out of fuel.
“If it wasn’t so, the owner should have already claimed it by now, it’s already been two days. Right?”
“Well, either way, it doesn’t matter, I’ll keep it inside until someone turns up and claims it” the owner of the store replied.
“What about the authenticity of the claim?”
“Anyone who now knows about the Kenbo can come and claim it and will you give it to the first person that comes along and claim the bike?” the driver remarked, sarcastically.
“Well, I’ll be rid of the bike and that’s all that matters.”
“So you can sleep peacefully without knowing it’s in the right hands?”
“That won’t be my problem”
“It will be, has been from the time you took the bike inside your compound,” the driver said sourly.
“I suggest you guys save yourselves the trouble and hand the bike over to the policemen as he says,” I said to the two of them pointing at the driver.
Wungthei who had been silently going about loading the truck with the timbers finally joined in the conversation.
“That’s one thing yes, but hand it over to the policemen and the owner will never see the bike again.” He said, still loading the wooden planks into the pickup truck. It didn’t make sense. We all looked at him while he continued with his work without as much as throwing a glance at us.
A few wooden planks into the truck later he stood upright, wiped the sweat off his brow, and then told us how all the Kenbos running in the streets of Ukhrul were unregistered; either bought from a second owner from the black market or illegally smuggled in from Burma across the borders.
“Yes, the police might turn a blind eye to all the stolen vehicles running around the town, that’s work for them and you know how they hate work. But give them a sniff at making easy money and they won’t let it pass,” he said.
It made sense.
“What if he hands it over to the Wung Tangkhul Region office (office of the NSCN-IM to take care of the law and order and proper conduct of the people)?” the driver asked.
“Well, it’s hard to say.” Wungthei paused for a while and then continued.
“They might keep it for a while but when the owner doesn’t turn up in a few days, one of their boys will be gleefully riding it to run errands around the town.”
“What you can do is hand it over to the authorities of the local community and they’ll notify the public over the PA and then hopefully the rightful owner will come and claim it.
Even if the owner fails to come forward, it’ll be the problem of the local committee and not yours.”
We (Wungthei, the driver, and I) thought it was the most sensible way to get the owner of the store out of trouble but he was a man as obtuse as the timbers he sold.
“As I said in the first place, I’ll keep it with me until the owner comes and claim it.” the owner of the store replied, and, saying that he went away.
The three of us might have said this in unison at the back of our minds. It took us a few minutes to finish loading the timber and then we were on the road.
For the first few minutes of the ride, we were, like all other normal people would, talking about the bike, how stubborn the owner of the store was, how the law enforcers in our town were not to be trusted anymore, and such.
That discussion, however, didn’t last long as more important matters came up for the driver. He was soon cursing the condition of the roads in the town. A curse for a slushy stretch of a road followed by another curse for a pothole that he said has taken toll on many small vehicles with low ground clearance. How his old jeep was also one of the victims of the ruthless roads of Ukhrul. And of course, he also talked with gleaming eyes and huge pride, about the new pickup truck he himself rode out of the showroom.
The matter of the bike was forgotten quicker than it had happened.
Wungthei was diligent in his work as he was in his conduct and the renovation of the house was going as smooth and swift as we could have hoped.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I went to the same store again to get more supplies.
This time the driver wasn’t there and I asked the owner of the store what had become of the bike.
“One of my boys took it out for a run a few days ago. There’s no problem with the bike and he’s been riding it ever since” the reply came, smiling.
What surprised me more was the fact that I wasn’t even surprised. It was almost as if I was expecting a similar reply and had braced myself for it all along.
“Oh good,” I said, trying to sound interested as I paid the bill. He nodded and smiled.
I was soon out on the lookout for a hardware store to purchase nails and paint for the house. The renovation had to be complete before I left for the city again.